On the hottest April day since 1949, I hit the ‘hills’ of Northamptonshire with a group that meets up every Thursday in different locations. The idea is to gather at a coffee stop, the organiser gives out the route sheets and takes bookings for lunch, then everyone takes to the road in self-selected groups to meet at the pub for lunch, and from there everyone makes their own way home.
I always ride out to the café, do the ride in between, then ride home again, usually logging up between 80-100km, so it can occupy most of the day. This particular group has been meeting for 40-50 years, and some of the originals are still there, not riding the miles as they used to, but still active. And each one is a ‘cycling encyclopaedia’ of bicycle wisdom, anecdotal stories of their achievements and near-misses, and often masters of the art of bicycle-fettling. I always enjoy their company.
Just like straddling the equator, straddling the Greenwich Meridian should be just as momentous, but I wonder how many thousands of people going in and out of Cambridge on a daily basis from/to the west realise (or simply remember) that, geographically, they are moving from one time zone to another?
Let’s face it, even though this line of longitude became the official worldwide 0 degree point as far back as 1884, so that all time zones around the globe could be determined, there are many countries in the world that have ignored it, and have simply opted into the ‘time-zone next door’ for their own convenience.
This came to my attention many years ago after visiting Galicia (NW Spain) and Sicily in the month of February. Although officially in the same time zone (central European time), they were so far apart (east to west) that there was a clear 100 minutes of difference between their respective sunrises and sunsets, and if you look at the map of time zones, you will see that Spain should, geographically speaking, be in the Greenwich meantime zone.
However, you can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the actual line, verified thousands of times by modern GPS systems, is actually 334 feet to the east (c102 metres) which, at the speed of a Usain Bolt, is all of 10 seconds away.
Disappointingly, we have been living a lie all this time…….
Discovering a new piece of software that can bring your day’s ride to life helps you to relive the experience in a different way. And for those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of propelling themselves through the countryside on a pair of wheels, this kind of animation of a route may possibly kindle an interest.
As you will see from the photo embedded in the video, the weather did not inspire, but once on the bike, with the leg muscles warming up, the sheer momentum of the experience can make the weather irrelevant…….unless, of course, it is ‘tanking it down’……which it was the other day. But then the worst that can happen to you is…..you get wet…….and so what?
Most of my riding may be solo these days, given that I live out ‘in the sticks’, but I invariably join up with other roadies at some ‘watering hole’ to chew over the fat, and to indulge in that favourite pastime of most roadies……coffee and cake.
One of the groups I tie in with is made up mostly of the ‘retired-and-idle’, who have nothing better to do with their spare time than to ride bikes and eat cake. I mean that in
jest of course, but it’s not too far from the truth. Today’s ride took me to a small Northamptonshire village called Earls Barton, a community with a rich Anglo Saxon heritage (pre-600 AD), in later years famous for its leather trade, and most recently a protagonist in the film Kinky Boots, which was based on the Northamptonshire shoe trade.
Our watering hole today was a very nice café in the local marina, nestling beside the moorings of river boats and narrow boats, and it was warm enough in the sunshine to sit outside on the veranda. Although I have been
retired for nearly ten years, I was clearly the ‘junior’ member of this group, the eldest well into his 80s. And this is the message of hope, perhaps…….that riding a bike regularly, doing some decent weekly mileage (which all of these people clearly do), keeps you fit and active……and it is remarkable how little the aches and pains of old age creep into the chat and banter over the table. If any discomfort and pain is ever mentioned it is usually about the damn headwind on the way out, or the hill that had them grinding in their lowest gear…….or occasionally about some inconsiderate driver who nearly cut them up. Otherwise, we are usually engaged in relating anecdotes of cycling times past, or discussing something technical about the bikes, or mocking the latest generation of sportive riders who ‘have all the gear and no idea’…….and would be better off riding a cheaper bike and losing several kilos of body fat.
All said and done, we have a laugh.
Then I came across this green plaque in Woolaston and learned something new about the town……
Re: Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Michael Hutchinson, a former pro-cyclist-turned-journalist, writes an excellent weekly column in The Comic………more accurately known as Cycling Weekly. His style is to combine well-informed commentary on aspects of the world of cycling, mixed with wry humour and critical insights into whatever is current or in fashion. I know some faithful followers of the magazine turn immediately to his column when they open their current edition.
Re: Cyclists, 200 years on two wheels is his take on (basically) the entire history of cycling, from the ‘draisine’ (hobby horse) invented by Baron von Drais in Germany in 1816 to what we know to today, the bicycle in all its configurations. No matter how sophisticated bicycles become, from the technical metal compounds that go into the frames, to the growing subtlety of the accessories that go on the frames, the design of the bicycle has not fundamentally changed over the years. Two hundred years on we are still taking advantage of that leap of imagination that went into building the early machines, and that will probably never change.
His perambulations take him through the history of Cycling Weekly, a magazine that began simply as Cycling in 1891, bang in the era of the penny farthing (perhaps the most dangerous of the velocipedes to ride), through its brief and disastrous flirt with mopeds, when it was renamed in 1957 as Cycling and Mopeds, to its current incarnation, inspired largely by the world of racing.
Although he dedicates the last chapter to the future of cycling (as most similar tomes do) he is challenged to predict any fundamental changes ahead, given that we have already come through 200 years of history and development without any real departures from the original designs.
A good book and worth reading.
If cycling on a bright sunny spring morning does nothing else, it will most certainly bring us in closer contact with the beauty of the world around us, but sometimes that beauty is adulterated by human beings. No, I am not talking about farmers, road menders, wayside factory units or inconsiderate drivers, I am referring to the feckless individuals who are intent on ‘spoiling the party’ by dumping their household waste on country roadside verges.
Not only do they thoughtlessly dump it willy-nilly in remote spots, but they also make their unwelcome presence felt by spreading their rubbish in several places, thus making it harder for anyone to clear up. So, what do they gain, and what could they potentially lose if they are identified?
Given that most of this waste could easily be disposed of through normal domestic collection, they gain absolutely nothing. But they do stand to lose on at least two counts: if they are identified (and household waste can throw up a lot of clues) they stand to be stung for a £400 fine, but more importantly, if they are members of a local community, they may have to face the opprobrium of those who live around them.
This very same stretch of road (I have decided) also sees the frequent passage of a committed coca cola drinker. How do I know? I see many discarded cans by the road side, but along this stretch there were no fewer than some 20 coke cans……the same colour red, the same company insignia…..is it not time to impose an environmental tax on these companies.
Rant over…. today’s ride was otherwise glorious, mixed as it was with paying a visit to two old friends en route.
Good to feel the warmth of the sun piercing the multiple layers of insulation……is this the real beginning of spring? The countryside has that air about it, pendant catkins and developing sticky buds tell their story, even the bird life is being lulled into a frantic bout of nest building.
Where does the truth lie?
The lowest county summit
I don’t live in the flattest part of England, because that accolade is probably richly deserved by Lincolnshire, but the now non-existent county where I do live (old Huntingdonshire) does proudly boast the lowest historic county summit in the country….which is of particular interest if you are an inveterate ‘hill-bagger’….yes, there is a league of hill-baggers out there who go bagging all the highest points of historic counties, no matter how low they are.
Imagine going from bagging Scafell Pike (978 metres/3208 ft) to the summit of old Huntingdonshire (81metres/266 ft)…..not exactly in the same league, I would say, but features on the same list of baggable points.
Now, I tell you all this simply because my route today took me dangerously close to bagging my first highest summit on a bike…..and astonishingly it is listed in the baggers’ almanac with the never-to-be-forgotten name of ‘Boring Field’, just outside the village of Covington.
However, and this is a big ‘however’…….there is a hotly contested issue as to the summit’s exact whereabouts. Could it really be on a bridge over the now defunct Huntingdon-Kettering railway track? In other words, do engineering structures really count as part of the landscape?
Don’t write to me….write to your local MP…..
Drowning the candle…..
It was, of course, a delight to climb on the tandem, pedal in sync for a few miles, enjoy the cool February sunshine, and to punctuate our ride with a fine lunch at a local country pub.
Jenny, very kindly, poured me a glass of water, releasing the slice of lemon for my sole benefit, and as I put the glass to my lips I peered into the depths of the glass and, beneath the slice of lemon, lurked a tea-light candle……😁 She had decanted my water into the candle holder……..!
Well, we made ‘light’ of it, it didn’t ‘douse’ our enthusiasm for the meal, but it put paid to a candlelit experience…….
Don’t be impressed…..now bike less, I picked up a colectivo taxi which, because it is shared with other disparate passengers, is not so expensive. With some guidance from a mapping app on my phone, the driver found the casa where I had started my journey 2 weeks before, which would be a last ditch attempt to meet up with Bob, an American cycling buddy whom I had met in New Zealand 6 years ago. We had already made an abortive attempt a couple of years ago to go cycling together in Cuba, but it never happened, and I went off to Florida instead for 2 weeks.
When I met Bob for the first time, he and his 10 year old daughter, Anna, were riding a Hase Pino tandem ( with a semi-recumbent front rider) and his wife Christine was on a solo. They had courageously taken a year out to cycle the world together as a family, and we met on a campsite of South Island. We stuck together for the next few days, climbing a few hills together, finally saying goodbye in Queenstown. I knew then that was not going to be the last I would see of them.
It was so good to be in his company again, very much a case of like minds coming together again. We seized the moment, sharing a good 10 hours of stories, anecdotes and shared memories, before Bob headed back to Lake Tahoe in California. We hadn’t met on the road because our travel schedules hadn’t quite matched, and independent travellers don’t like hanging around, but we kept in touch on the road, and pinned ourselves down to this get-together.
It was the perfect conclusion to an eventful couple of weeks.
Heading to the city of ‘a hundred fires’, I had decided to make this the last day of cycling in Cuba, and hand over my faithful old steed to Sergio…..except that Sergio lived in Sta Clara, about 100km away.
But he was so excited about the gift, he said he would borrow a camión and come and fetch it. A more deserving recipient I could not have found. When I first met him, there was an immediate meeting of minds….we found ourselves on the same wave length from the first moments, we shared a lot of conversations over a wide range of subjects….in short, we were very comfortable in each other’s company.
Staying at the casa of a friend of theirs here in Cienfuegos, he was able to find me quickly this morning, and we went out to a peso eating place (where only Cubans generally eat, at state subsidised prices) and had a couple of beers and a pizza. He was trying to thank me for the bike, but this 30 year old wonder was needing a new home, so I explained some of its peculiarities: it’s quick-release wheels and saddle, how the 21 gears worked, the Girvin flex stem…..all of this is old technology to us, but not to the average Cuban.
He had left his truck on the outskirts of the city, so he had to take courage and climb on the bike in front of me……and great to say I didn’t detect even the slightest wobble.
When I told him the history of the bike, the countries that it has visited and the number of kms ridden (probably 80-100,00kms), he adopted an immediate reverence towards it. I asked him if he might plan any trips, and he told me he likes to go lake fishing at weekends, so will already be doing regular 30km trips.
I waved him off knowing that ours will be a lasting friendship that will go beyond the bike. And his gift to me is that I now have one bike fewer to store and maintain……and I know it’s going to a good home……
Cubans obviously don’t have enough mountain roads to really get today’s climb into perspective. Everyone told me, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads, it’s tough, very steep, you may not make it……probably have to walk….why not catch a camión? Well, I must confess, I was filled with some trepidation….but not too much…..after all, I’ve climbed over the Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites….should I go on?
When I got to the top of a steepish climb towards the end, I suddenly realised I’d actually climbed it without realising….is that bragging, or are Cubans just unrealistic about constitutes a real hill?
However, at the top there was a mirador (café with a viewing point) giving panoramic views over to the sea, with Trinidad just out of view.
At on of my pitstops, at a small roadside bar, I asked for bottled water, then a soft drink, but all they could offer was beer! Throwing principles out of the window, I had a beer, and met my namesake, Francis
At another stop, in the shade of a bus shelter, I met Nivado,
who entertained me with his meandering jovial chatter. He was the only one to temper his comments about the severity of the climb. He actually said I’d already climbed one that he thought worse. I immediately liked him. But he, like lots of others, thought I was gallego(Galician), because I speak with a mainland Spanish accent.
There’s a history to this observation. Like the Irish, the Galicians have been the greatest emigrators from Spain over the centuries, so anyone with a mainland accent is assumed to be gallego. Once they realise I’m not gallego, they popularly guess I’m from one the Scandinavian countries…..until I put them right. I’m not sure how many actually know where England is…..it’s over there somewhere, and it’s cold, wet and misty….all the time.
My route today was 73km, occasionally with a good tailwind, but mostly a crosswind…..
During my two night stopover as a guest of Elsa and Sergio, I feel they have become good friends. On the second evening, they invited me to supper, opened a bottle of Cuban wine (sweet, like an oloroso sherry), brought out the beer, and refused to charge me. In the company of an Argentinian couple, we talked for hours, me stifling my amusement at the Argentinian accent…..which I find very funny.
Alone in the company of Elsa and Sergio, they plied me with questions, especially about my bike trips, but as I put details on some of the trips, I could see in their eyes a sad longing for all the opportunities they have missed out on. They were children of the revolution, and they’ve known nothing else. They have borne the restrictions and deprivations all their lives, but they never uttered a single negative word about it…..obviously great believers in all the revolution stood for. The ‘special period’ in the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was especially difficult. They had lost their only trading partner in the world, which meant their economy collapsed, and the shortages were so acute that the average body weight of Cubans dropped by 10%. Fighting their own battles, with no friends in the commercial world, means that if a crop fails, there is nothing to replace it. For instance, after the recent hurricane Irma, fruit crops were completely destroyed, meaning that they simply had to do without. At that moment bananas, the cyclist’s best friend, are completely off the menu…..but my breakfasts have still included papaya, guava, pineapple and orange…..so things are improving.
Sergio has expressed a serious interest in having my bike, especially since he had his stolen a few months ago. He likes to take his grandson about on a special kiddy seat he made of wood, and he is prepared to travel to pick it up ……so watch this space. I feel he will be a very worthy recipient.
Much of today’s 87km route was on a nicely surfaced country road, allowing me a couple of convenient pitstops in villages. But even better than that, a ‘cold front’ had come in, meaning the temperature had actually dropped to 20C, and the wind was generally behind me (in good panto tradition, of course)….it was a huge relief not having the sweat pouring off me for the whole ride. When it is hot in Cuba, it can be oppressively hot…..especially for cycling.
I’m surprised Santa Clara hasn’t been re-named Ciudad de Che, because the town is largely a monument to his memory. It’s astonishing that, nearly 60 years after the revolution, the dominant message coming from all official quarters is that Cuba is still in revolution, and is still trying to achieve its ultimate goals through revolutionary action.
The only national newspaper, Granma, is still tightly controlled and still preaches only one message: revolution. The vast majority of Cubans have known only one thing throughout their lives: revolution. I keep asking myself…..how do they maintain the momentum? Where does this continued enthusiasm for revolution come from?
The principal monument in Santa Clara is the Che mausoleum and its adjoining museum. His remains were returned from Bolivia 30 years after his assassination, along with the remains of some of his soldiers, and buried beneath this enormous statue of Che, the fighter and comandante. He was an enigmatic figure. It is easy to get to love the icon, his alleged caring attitude to the welfare of his soldiers, his deep convictions about the worth of the individual. He claimed he would sacrifice his life to make repressed people, anywhere in the world, free.
On the other hand, there was the ruthless fighter, the killing machine, the extreme disciplinarian who would execute his own men if called upon to do so. What we have is the lionised version of the man created by Castro and his cohort……so this mausoleum has become the tomb of a revolutionary saint.
If there was just one military action that caused the lionization of the man, it would have to be the derailment of the train in Santa Clara (these are the actual wagons reassembled to depict the action) which was carrying 400 government soldiers and huge consignments of arms. With only 24 men, against 400 heavily armed men, the battle was won within an hour, and so emphatic was the victory, that it turned out to be the very last engagement of the war. Two days later, on January 1st 1959, the revolution had its final victory.
If you’ve stayed with this post to this point, well done…… I hope to get back to some cycling tomorrow.
I want you to be impressed, but not because I cycled the 500km eastwards to get to Santa Clara, in central Cuba. No…….. I want you to be impressed that I actually survived two ‘white-knuckle’ rides in colectivo taxis. The first was driven by Pedro, to La Habana, with four passengers (including two Swedes and a south Korean), and my bike strapped on the roof. His Lada was the equivalent of my £50 bangers in the 70s, with the same lack of any safety features. He drove it at breakneck speed through torrential rain storms, all the while on his phone touting for business for his return journey. And I discovered that everyone drives in the fast lane on the highway (and overtakes on the slow lane) because there are fewer potholes in the fast lane. I got out of that car feeling completely rung out.
My next colectivo, from La Habana to Santa Clara, was a more controlled experience (and I shared this ride with three Cubans), but it broke down when we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere. After a lot of fettling under the bonnet, the driver finally kicked it into life…..and yes, it was yet another damned Lada.
So I am now in Santa Clara, a town which is synonymous with Che Guevara and his memory, where his mausoleum is situated, as is a variety of other reminders of when the Cuban Revolution came to a successful end, and when Batista fled to pastures new. But more of that later…..
My stay in Los Vinales concluded with an absolutely stunning 20km ride along the valley,
a lush green landscape noted for its tobacco crops and continued use of traditional methods of cultivation. Yes, fields are actually still ploughed using a pair of oxen…..and they are beautiful beasts.
I checked into the first casa I chanced by, met a neighbour who will look after the bike, and had a very interesting chat with the man of the house, and surprisingly, he knew all about Brexit, and had some stark things to say about Donald Trump. Of course, we all now know that the so-called ‘sonic attack’ on the US embassy in La Habana was completely fabricated by the Americans, seemingly as an excuse for severing diplomatic relations once again with Cuba……..I leave you to ponder that one for yourself.
Accessing the internet is a curious business in Cuba. One thing that stands out is that Cubans are never seen using their devices along streets, in restaurants, or even at home. Why? Because there is no home provision of wifi for anyone other than important public servants, and there is definitely no mobile data for anyone. To get online, everyone has to buy a data card, costing at least £1 per hour, and they can only connect at hotspots, usually in small parks and public squares. The big question is: how to find the hotspots, because they are not signed in anyway. I’m sure you’ve already worked this one out……..yep, look for clusters of people intently using their devices. That is the only way….. Despite these restrictions, many Cubans seem to be very internet savvy, and everyone under a certain age (40, perhaps) will have a smartphone. But, of course, smartphones are not very smart in Cuba…..yet.
Talking of deprivations, the variety of food and consumer goods probably reflects what rationing was like for us in the last war. I have been in a number of little village stores looking for a snack and the shelves have been empty. If you do find a packet of biscuits, maybe even with a filling, the price will so high for the average Cuban that it will only ever be a treat. Don’t get me wrong, no one is underfed, but choice is extremely limited, making eating sometimes a boring repetitive experience…..but not for the average tourists, of course. This is a fairly typical breakfast, and never lacking in abundance.
As a chocoholic, can I service my addiction in Cuba? Definitely not….I have yet to see any chocolate of any description in places where the locals shop.
And sorry to bore you with bike issues again. One of the ‘new’ pedals stripped the threads off one of the cranks…..I eventually found a bunch of young bike mechanics who eventually found a solution…..another crank. They got one by asking around the neighbourhood….they are resourceful bunch of people.
Noel was the guy who came out on his sleek electric scooter to tout for my business, and I was not disappointed with his offer of accommodation.
On the terrace of his newly-built green-painted bungalow, you could sit and gaze across the Sierra del Rosario and up to the high point where Che Guevara had trained some of his soldiers for the doomed Bolivia campaign. And by way of interest, Noel’s wife was called Milady…..
I also got to meet Inés and Malte (not a couple). We had all converged on the same accommodation….evidence of some good marketing there by Noel, who knows how to catch his customers. Inés was German and just taking 10 days out to hitch hike around bits of Cuba. Malte, who was Danish, was just coming to the end of 4 months travelling before settling down to begin his PhD. He had spent time in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia getting up to lots of adventurous things. They were inspiring company for the two meals we shared together.
30km into my ride to Pinar del Río, I began to suffer badly from the heat, so rather than draw out the agony, I climbed on one of the infamous truck buses (simply called camiones) and they helped to haul up the bike as well.
It was packed with passengers inside, everybody enduring the discomfort of rudimentary box seating, but it was fast and cheap. And, of course, there’s something special about sharing the same transport as the local people…..
My first night in a casa particular was a perfect introduction to the real Cuba. My host picked me and my bike up at the airport in an old Eastern bloc Lada, stuffed my bike in the boot, took me to his beautiful home, fed and watered me and gave me a comfortable room……and didn’t worry that I didn’t have the currency to pay him. No worry, he said, we can sort that out tomorrow.
In the morning, not only did I have to look for a cadeca to change my sterling into CUCs (which you can’t purchase outside Cuba), but I had to find a pair of pedals to replace the ones I had stupidly left on the garage floor at home. I found a young black African Cuban with a small tabletop stall selling bike bits, and it didn’t surprise me that he couldn’t supply a pair of Shimano SPDs…..so I made do with a simple pair of ‘rat traps’.
So I and the bike were ready to roll by 10am…..
But my northern clime body had to make a rapid adjustment to the heat…as the day wore on, the temperature rapidly rose through the 20s, probably peaking at about 27C, and there was rain in the air….and later on rolling thunder claps that got ominously near.
As I headed west, I was enveloped by images of the 1950s, of pre-revolutionary Cuba, with classic Buicks and Chevrolets all lovingly restored, but all sickenly belching out noxious clouds of fumes. The truck drivers had no idea that their ‘gentle friendly toots’ were deafening blasts of their claxons that made me jump out of the saddle. And what I took for cattle trucks turned out to be passenger bearing buses.
In some cases they were open-backed lorries with the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, as if they were being transported off to some far distant gulag.
When I got to Las Terrazas, I discovered a gated community with a 2CUC charge for entry. The gate keeper explained away my puzzlement by telling me I was entering a biosphere reservation, and then promptly promoted his brother’s casa particular for my night’s stopover…..the kind of marketing I would normally ignore, but Noel (his brother) came out to meet me, and I liked all his answers to my many questions…..and besides, he was already hosting a German lady and a Danish lad, so it sounded like promising company for the evening.